From Farquhar to Field Day

Nuala McCallister Hart recalls three centuries of music and theatre in Derry~Londonderry

In the introduction to her recently published book, From Farquhar to Field Day: Three Centuries of Music and Theatre in Derry – Nuala McCallister Hart explains that she set out to illustrate how the people of Derry~Londonderry developed their cultural heritage, mostly in a spirit of collaboration and with the help of outsiders.

Hart also expresses the hope that, on the eve of Derry's UK City of Culture 2013 celebrations – when old ties will be renewed and new collaborations created – the maiden city's record of cross community events in earlier times will counterbalance the years of cultural apartheid between Catholics and Protestants, which deepened after the Partition of Ireland in 1922 and were aggravated by The Troubles.

Based on research for a PhD, From Farquhar to Field Day has all the detail of a scholarly reference book, including an appendix of key events.

Hart recalls everything from the birth of playwright George Farquhar in 1677, to the Field Day production of Brian Friel’s play Translations in 1980 right through to 2008, when the George Farquhar Theatre Festival showcased all seven of Farquhar’s plays.

Derry’s links with London began with the granting of a Royal Charter in 1613, whereupon London companies invested in the city and built its famous walls. St Columb’s cathedral was completed in 1633, the first Anglican cathedral to be erected in Britain after the Reformation.

At the Market House, known also as the Exchange, which dominated the main square, traders sold their goods in the arcades on the ground floor while upstairs, the Assembly room hosted plays, ballad operas and balls.

The city’s first theatre opened in Shipquay street in 1774 followed by another in Artillery Lane, and the Londonderry Musical society was active from the early 1780s. Internationally famous artists who performed in the city included the Swedish Soprano Jenny Lind and the Shakespearean actor Edmund Keane.

The book evokes the general air of elegance in 18th century Derry. The Bishop’s Gardens and the Walls were places to stroll ‘for the fashion and beauty of the city’. The River Foyle itself was an attraction for boat races and annual regattas.

Hart describes ‘novelty’ visits to the city by the likes of Count Joseph Boruslaski, a guitar-playing Polish dwarf, whose wife, a woman of normal stature, would lift him onto the mantelpiece when she was annoyed with him and leave him there to struggle down alone.

In the 30 years after 1830, no fewer than 15 European families of musicians and about a dozen Scottish musicians arrived in Derry. Yet in these pages, one can detect the seeds of dissent. When the Royal Opera House opened in Carlisle Road in 1877, for example, it was the first of its kind in Ulster but it also seemed to attract controversy.

At a performance of the pantomime Aladdin, attended by the Prince of Wales, a riot broke out. Catholics in the gallery began to heckle when they thought the players were making fun of Parnell. Protestants in the pit responded by singing the National Anthem and the performance was abandoned. When the Opera house burned down in 1940, the Belfast branch of the IRA claimed responsibility for the fire.

St Eugene’s cathedral acquired an organ which was inaugurated with a concert by the Fisk Jubilee Singers from Tennessee. Even so, the said organ could hardly rival that of the Guildhall, described as ‘the king of instruments’ whose reign was cut short when fire destroyed the building on Easter Sunday 1908. When the Guildhall reopened in 1912, its interior was refurbished more lavishly than before with ornate stained glass windows commemorating the Guilds of London.

Hart notes that the renewed links with London were not controversial at the time but would become more so when political circumstances changed, and alleged gerrymandering, known locally as ‘derrymandering’ within Londonderry Corporation, would make Derry’s Catholics more sensitive to its significance.

An enterprising Englishman, Mr H B Phillips, established a piano showroom in spacious premises at 30 Shipquay street and began promoting concerts in the city. When Edward Sousa and his band of 60 performers arrived in Derry in 1911, the concert was described as the musical event of the decade.

At the outbreak of the First World War, Derry’s Hamilton Flute Band are said to have joined the 10th Inniskilling Fusiliers ‘to a man’ and became its regimental band. The city’s 18,000 shirt factory hands and shipyards workers were drawn into the war effort, making army uniforms, munitions and ships.

Monthly benefit concerts were held during the Second World War while Bob Hope, George Formby and Al Johnson arrived at intervals to entertain servicemen at the American base.

The first Feis Ceoil, later called the Londonderry Feis, took place in the Guildhall in April 1900, its competitions open to entrants from all over Ireland. The Feis Dhoire Comcille, founded in 1922 by a committee of 43, is described by Hart as ‘a self-conscious turning back to the original idea of a festival of Irish culture’.

Derry, with its overwhelmingly Catholic and nationalist population, had expected to be part of the New Irish Free State, and soon its cultural life became increasingly divided along political and religious lines. Although the Londonderry Feis ceased to exist in 1998, the Feis Dhoire has grown from strength to strength.

In 1953, Josef Locke, who was born Joseph McLaughlin in the city's Creggan Street, appeared at a Guildhall concert organised in aid of Derry Football Club, which sold out within hours. Lock, who worked alongside George Formby in Blackpool, had become so popular as a performer that he was earning up to £100,000 a year. His star faded, however, when, unable to pay tax arrears, he retired to the South of Ireland.

Hart credits the late Bishop Edward Daly as being among the first to recognise and harness the power of community involvement in culture as a means of social regeneration. In 1962, when he was curate of St Eugene’s Cathedral, Daly initiated Sunday Night Variety shows at St Columb’s Hall with headlining acts that included Ruby Murray, Val Doonican, The Clancy Brothers, Roy Orbison and Jim Reeves.

According to Hart, the Field Day company’s production of plays by Brian Friel, Derek Mahon, Tom Paulin, Thomas Kilroy and Stewart Parker, and their initial choice in 1980 of the Guildhall as a venue, seemed to mark a turning point for the arts in Derry, and the promise of a new era in which nationalists and unionists would work together to develop their joint cultural heritage.

Furthermore, the so-called Foyle renaissance of the 1980s and 90s, which produced over 25 different arts festivals in the city, owed much to the vision and determination of a handful of local figures. Pauline Ross, for instance, founded the Playhouse Arts Theatre.

Sean Doran, who was artistic director of Impact ’92 and the Octoberfest, presented an ambitious programme that was criticised by some for being too elitist and too expensive, yet those initiatives proved that Derry~Londonderry could attract and accommodate artists of international standing.

The Two Choirs Festival, Derry’s equivalent to the English Three Choirs Festival, was organised by the city’s organists, Donal Doherty and Tim Allen, who succeeded in attracting leading international musicians.

Established by the government in 2003 to develop Fort George and Ebrington Barracks, Ilex-urc soon identified culture as a means of regenerating the city. In partnership with Derry City Council, they submitted the bid which, because of its emphasis on culture as a unifying factor and a force for reconciliation, won for Derry the honour of becoming the UK’s first City of Culture.

In this 300 page volume, Hart concentrates on charting the events of the last 300 years and profiling Derry~Londonderry’s artists and promoters rather than reflecting their views. She leaves it to the reader to make up their own minds about the rights and the wrongs. In publishing From Farquhar to Field Day, Hart has made her own welcome contribution to the cultural life of Derry-Londonderry.

From Farquhar to Field Day: Three Centuries of Music and Theatre in Derry~Londonderry is out now, published by The History Press.